Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
San Mateo firefighters Andrew Martinez, Sean Sims and Joe Rupena bring out supplies at Station 21 for the annual chili cook-off fundraiser in San Mateo’s Central Park this Saturday.
The public is invited to indulge their taste buds with an ambitious group of firefighters battling it out to win this year’s chili cook-off fundraiser in San Mateo.
Nine fire departments across San Mateo County will spend Saturday in Central Park dishing out their best recipes to win over the crowd and a panel of judges. The twin goals are the coveted title of best-tasting chili and raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
The San Mateo Fire Department, which started the cook-off, are last year’s reigning champs and will compete against fire departments from Foster City, Central County, San Bruno, Menlo Park, Belmont, Woodside, San Francisco and Pacifica, San Mateo firefighter Sean Sims said.
The winners will take home a plaque and bragging rights for serving up the best tasting chili.
“As far as the cooking goes, the chili recipe just kind of almost depends on who’s cooking that year. There’s only a couple guys that are confident enough to make that much chili taste good. It’s hard to make 40 gallons of chili taste good,” Sims said. “But we have three or four guys in the department that can pull it off.”
After working to push San Mateo for the win last year, firefighter Joe Rupena will once again represent the department by helping to cook chili this year.
“It’s just whoever’s up for it. It’s a lot of work, but I like to cook. We cook [chili] almost every tour, so you get a lot of time to work on your recipe and get the flavor that’s going to work.” Rupena said. “We’re usually scraping the bottom of the pot.”
Cooking a large enough batch of chili to satisfy thousands of attendees costs about $1,000, San Mateo firefighter Andrew Martinez said.
This is the sixth year the San Mateo County Fire Fighters’ Association has hosted the entertainment-filled afternoon that helps send local children with MDA to camp, raise awareness, provide medical supplies and contribute to finding a cure for neuromuscular diseases.
“The fire department in general, across the country, is one of the single biggest organizations that donates to MDA,” Sims said. “Usually it’s with the fill the boot fundraiser, but we were kind of looking to do something different. … We wanted to do a more community-based event.”
The annual event raises about $15,000 to $20,000, which contributes to the $40,000 cost of a week-long summer camp, Martinez said.
Martinez said he was prompted to act after meeting some of the children that suffer from neuromuscular disorders. Many of them are just like normal kids with fully developed brains, but struggle with muscle function that can leave them in wheelchairs, Martinez said.
“I went up to the boot camp and it was probably one of the most special days I’ve ever had,” Martinez said.
The summer camp in Sebastopol supports children and gives parents a break to focus on other parts of the family, Martinez said.
“It lets the kids be around other kids that suffer from MDA. It truly tries to help them feel like they’re normal,” Martinez said. “It’s just a really sad disease.”
With support from the city, Parks and Recreation Department and community, the fire departments are able to enliven the park. The venue will boast live music, a kid zone with a bounce house slide, dunk tank, face painting, great food and drinks, Sims said.
“It’s a great venue, the location, it brings a lot of people to the downtown area. Especially if we can get a couple thousand people in the park,” Martinez said.
Several restaurants will also compete in their own category including Block 34, Whole Foods, Kingston Café, Steelhead Brewing Company, Three Restaurant and Bar and the kitchen at Versailles senior apartment complex.
In both the fire department and restaurant categories, each organization has the chance to win the people’s choice and impress a panel of local judges.
This year, San Mateo Mayor Robert Ross, Councilman David Lim, two children who suffer from MDA and two local chefs will decide who takes home the awards, Sims said.
The entry fee is $10 to taste all the samples one can stomach, receive a free drink and a full bowl of a favorite chili. The event is free for small children. The people’s choice contest is won after attendees try as many recipes as desired and then turn in their ticket to the department from which they want a full bowl. Whichever fire department collects the most tickets, won over the crowd, Sims said.
The large public event takes significant work and money to put on, but it’s thankfully supported by the community, firefighters and especially the cadets, Sims said.
“They’re a big help because it takes a lot of people to run the event. Along with a lot of off-duty firefighters and firefighters’ families, [they] are basically just making it happen,” Sims said.
Even if someone’s not a big chili fan, Sims said the entire event is sure to entertain.
“It’s for a great cause, for the kids to go to camp. It’s also a getaway, you can just hang out on the lawn, listen to really good music,” Sims said. “It’s a really high energy fun time.”
The San Mateo City Firefighters’ Association’s sixth annual Chili Cook-off is 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23 at Central Park, 50 E. Fifth Ave., San Mateo.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106